Loring Weisenberger
January 20, 2023

Tips for Budgeting Crew Payroll

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Whether you’re hustling to make a low-budget indie or struggling with the sheer size of a blockbuster, budgeting crew payroll is a crucial challenge for any producer on any production.

We’re here to help you get your next production on its feet as fast as possible by breaking down the basics of budgeting for crew payroll. We’ll show you a free budget template to jumpstart the process and point out a few simple tips and tricks to help you get the most bang for your budgeted bucks.

First, let’s get you equipped with the right tools.

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Download the Free Budget Template

Crew payroll doesn’t exist on an island. It has to work within a production’s budget as a whole. Before we dive into budgeting details, take a moment to gain perspective and download Wrapbook’s free film budget template. 

Tips for Budgeting Crew Payroll - Wrapbook - Film Budget Template

Our free template covers all the vital information you’ll need within your own budget, empowering you to better mitigate surprise expenses and to strategize with greater precision. By viewing crew payroll as one part of a larger whole, you and your team will be able to budget with more speed, confidence, and efficiency. 

How to budget crew payroll

Learning how to budget for crew payroll can seem intimidating at first. The process becomes manageable when you break it down into component parts. 

While your exact workflow might differ from project to project, the fundamental concepts and questions that drive your payroll budget will always remain the same. 

With that in mind, here are six easy(ish) steps for budgeting crew payroll.

Step #1: Start with budget estimates

As with crafting a budget for an entire project, it’s important to begin with the big picture when budgeting specifically for crew payroll. Preliminary budget estimates are not set in stone, or even detailed. Still, they’re required to understand the needs and limits of your production. 

If you’re still in the market for film financing, then your budget estimates should be designed as a wish list. An aspirational amount that you would like to have in order to make your movie. 

After you’ve secured funding, however, you’ll know exactly how much money you have to spend within your budget. 

That’s when estimates get interesting.

Tips for Budgeting Crew Payroll - Wrapbook - Budgeting
Production budgeting gets serious once you have hard numbers. SOURCE

Budget estimates based on a real, total budget amount will offer your first glimpse into how costs will interact.  You can identify budgetary strengths, weaknesses, and tensions. It’s also the earliest opportunity to form a realistic idea of how much you can spend on crew payroll. 

At this stage, your crew payroll budget will exist only as a number to compare and contrast with other numbers. It requires the context of cost categories - like equipment, locations, and production insurance- to mean anything.

From this point forward we’ll refine that payroll budget within itself. Both to bring out specific cost details and craft an actionable production plan.

Step #2: Build a preliminary schedule

A production’s budget and schedule always go hand-in-hand. The schedule is the primary driver of the budget, and the budget is the primary driver of the schedule. 

So in order to move our crew payroll budget toward a more detailed state, we have to explore our scheduling options. 

Figuring out how to create a shooting schedule is a complex task on its own. Fortunately, we only need the most basic information at this point. In fact, our information requirements are so basic that they boil down to a single, fundamental question:

How many days are in the schedule?

The number of days in the schedule dictates the number of days for which you’ll need to crew up. While we’re obviously most concerned about the production schedule, we’ll also need to consider preliminary timelines for pre-production and post-production. 

Basically, if you anticipate that a crew member will be working on any given day, you’ll need to account for that day in our crew payroll budget. 

Combined with budget estimates, the schedule provides critical information for further budget design. We know how much money we can spend. We know how long that money needs to last. Now, we have to figure out how many people we can actually hire.

Step #3: Calculate your crew

The next step in budgeting for crew payroll is to build a rough crew list. We need to figure out how many people we need to hire and in what positions. 

This step is tricky because no two crew positions are paid exactly alike. The gaffer works for a higher rate than the best boy electric. The 1st assistant camera person may require a kit fee. The set PA and the truck PA are paid at the same base rate, but the truck PA will likely incur overtime on a regular basis. 

We must account for all this variety in the budget. As you can imagine, the math gets complicated fast.

On the one hand, we know that a failure to address complexity head-on will lead to unwelcome surprises down the road. On the other hand, we also know surprises themselves are inevitable.

In order to toe the line between these two truths, producers need to simultaneously be as thorough as possible and make a conscious point to leave “wiggle room”.

“Wiggle room” can mean many things. Your budget should have a certain amount specifically earmarked for contingencies as a best practice, but it should also be designed with some general flexibility in mind. 

It could just as easily come in the form of purposefully over-budgeted cost areas or an understanding of potential budget trade-offs. 

Remember that filmmaking is collaborative. Most experienced department heads, for example, understand that production teams have a fiscal responsibility. If their department needs to hire an extra crew member, they’ll likely work with you to free up the necessary funds or find some other solution. 

Oh, and one more thing…

Step #4: Consider indirect costs

Day rates aren’t the only cost you pay for production personnel. There are many indirect costs that you may need to consider when budgeting crew payroll. You’ll need to consider items like workers’ compensation and payroll fees, for example.

Companies like Wrapbook bring many of these critical services under one roof and can provide a quick production insurance quote or even a payroll cost estimate at the price of just a few clicks. 

Tips for Budgeting Crew Payroll - Wrapbook - Payroll Estimator Tool
Budget payroll faster and more accurately with Wrapbook’s cost estimation tool.

However, there are often less obvious costs connected to crew payroll. For example, the size of your crew will also impact the amount you spend on catering.

 If you’re traveling, your crew size will influence the cost of lodging. If you’re shooting in town, a larger crew may mean renting a larger parking lot or filing permits for a larger portion of a city street. 

None of these costs are technically part of crew payroll, but it’s important to recognize their connection. Trimming and mitigating indirect crew costs is a critical component of integrating budget management with personnel management.

Step #5: Review your payroll budget

Once you’ve arrived at a working crew payroll budget, the next step is to review it. Budgets require a great deal of information, and the details of that information are changing all the time. Simple changes in the schedule or individual costs can be the highway to the danger zone. If you’re caught off-guard. 

As a rule, troubleshooting your budget early and often will save your production money in the long run.

Step #6: Rinse and Repeat

Schedules change. Production plans shift. Costs and savings increase and decrease. A lot can happen while making a movie, and the budget must evolve to keep stride. 

Remember that your crew payroll budget is a living document. It isn’t set in stone until the movie is finished, and that’s a good thing. It means that you can always optimize it. You have the power to correct mistakes and take advantage of new opportunities as they arise. 

In short, don’t be afraid to rinse, revise, and repeat. There’s always room for improvement.

Tips & Tricks: How to make the most of a limited crew payroll budget

Making ends meet on any production is tough. When you’re working with a limited crew payroll budget, you have to hustle to maximize its value. That’s why we’ve put together a few tips and tricks to help you make the most out of whatever you’ve got.

Tip #1: Treat budget challenges like creative challenges

The crew payroll budget does not exist in a vacuum. It is one small part of the massive machine required to make a movie. 

While that seems intimidating, there’s also an opportunity there. Budget problem-solving isn’t just a challenge of costs and savings; it’s also a challenge of creativity.

Every element of a production is connected. When facing a budget challenge, it’s helpful to recognize the wide range of potential solutions that a production presents. 

The key to a crew payroll challenge might just be found where you least expect it. For example, rather than lose a key character, shift all their scenes to one location to save shooting time and location fees.  You might even discover it makes their scenes more intimate and distinct if they’re associated with this one place.

Being open to the unexpected is just as important as protecting ourselves from it.

Tip #2: Keep your crew lean

Part of building a successful crew payroll budget is asking yourself the tough questions. You need to understand who’s essential and who’s not. Hiring only the crew that your production requires is the most direct path to an efficient crew payroll budget.

Of course, there is a trade-off to consider. You’ll find that some crew members may not be essential but are beneficial. They may save the production time and money, preventing costly overtime and other overages that a short-handed crew are more likely to incur. 

There is no one-size-fits-all answer, but there is a principle that can be applied to any production. To get the most out of a limited crew payroll budget, it’s always important to consider the value of the individual crew positions for which you are budgeting.

Tip #3: Consider tax credits and other incentives

Many states in the U.S. offer film tax credits that could save your production hundreds of thousands of dollars. Tax credits and similar incentives can free up funds to be redirected to your crew payroll budget and other areas of financial need. Reach out to local film boards or state tax organizations to see if you qualify.

To learn more, check out these handy guides from the Wrapbook blog:

Tip #4: Traveling? Hire local

If you’re traveling out of town for a shoot, the most straightforward way to reduce crew costs is to hire local labor. Hiring local crew won’t reduce your crew payroll budget directly, but it can dramatically reduce many of those indirect costs we mentioned earlier. The costs of travel, lodging, per diems, and local transportation all evaporate if you’re working with locals.

Plus, the benefits of hiring local extend far beyond production finance. Local crew know the territory.  Where the pitfalls are, the hidden locations you might not know about, and give you access to local production networks. 

Hiring local can even help you qualify for some of the above-mentioned tax credits.

Tip #5: Digitize your payroll workflow

Let’s face it. Managing crew payroll manually is a time-intensive, money-expensive, brain-numbing pain in the nether regions. It’s not fun. It’s not efficient. It’s just draining.

What if there was an alternative? What if you could cut out the manual work to make production payroll easy?

With Wrapbook, companies can pay cast and crew, track expenses, and generate on-demand payroll reports, while cast and crew can submit timecards and track pay from any device.

Tips for Budgeting Crew Payroll - Wrapbook - Onboarding
Wrapbook is a smart payroll platform that connects your entire team—production, accounting, cast, and crew—in a single, easy-to-use interface.

Wrapbook’s software and services deliver digitization to the foreground, bringing payroll into the 21st century and putting as much power as possible directly into the hands of filmmakers.

Tips for Budgeting Crew Payroll - Wrapbook - Simplified Timecards
From digital startwork to smart timecards to running payroll with the click of a button, Wrapbook streamlines payroll from start to wrap. 

Find out for yourself. View a quick demo.

Wrapping up

Budgeting crew payroll doesn’t have to be stressful. With a little know-how and our free budget template, you can build a budget that gets you the right crew at the right price.

If you're interested in learning more about the costs of payroll, check out our tips for minimizing payroll costs for below-the-line crew or our guide to avoiding expensive payroll mistakes.

Disclaimer

At Wrapbook, we pride ourselves on providing outstanding free resources to producers and their crews, but this post is for informational purposes only as of the date above. The content on our website is not intended to provide and should not be relied on for legal, accounting, or tax advice.  You should consult with your own legal, accounting, or tax advisors to determine how this general information may apply to your specific circumstances.

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About the Author

Loring Weisenberger

Loring is a Los Angeles-based writer, director, and creative producer. His work has been commissioned by a diverse range of clients- from Havas Worldwide to Wisecrack, inc.- and has been screened around the world. Through a background that blends project development with physical production across multiple formats, Loring has developed a uniquely eclectic skillset as a visual storyteller.

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Sign up for the Wrapbook monthly newsletter where we share industry news along with must-know guides for producers.